Almost two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Agnes Jones is thankful.
She is thankful to have a wonderful husband and two amazing daughters.
She is thankful for her co-workers at Morgan County Primary School, where the native of Bostwick and resident of Madison has taught for 26 years.
She is thankful for St. Mary’s 3D mammography technology, which detected a tiny invasive cancer in her breast.
And she is thankful to be cancer-free, living the life she loves.
“I’m so thankful it was caught early,” she said. “I’m thankful I was given an opportunity to fight this so soon, while it was most treatable.”
In March 2016, unusual pain in one breast led her to visit her doctor. Normally, she gets a mammogram at St. Mary’s each summer, after school is out. Her doctor urged her not to wait.
“My doctor said, ‘St. Mary’s has a new 3D mammography system that is better at detecting cancers early. Would you like to try it?’ I said, ‘Yes.’” She was quickly scheduled for a screening 3D mammogram at St. Mary’s Outpatient Radiology Center on Daniells Bridge Road.
Jones says the exam felt like 2D mammograms she had had before. It took about the same amount of time, required the same amount of compression and used about the same amount of ionizing radiation. But instead of showing all the tissue of the breast in a single x-ray picture, the Hologic Genius 3D Mammography System took a series of images – “slices” – that are each about 1 millimeter thick. The images stack like cards in a deck, making internal structures easier to see.
Radiologists at St. Mary’s found what looked like a tumor. Only 1 centimeter in diameter, it was too small to be visible in a follow-up ultrasound. But it showed up in a breast MRI scan, as did another suspicious spot in the same breast.
“My doctor told me it might not be anything, but if it was cancer, it was very small,” Jones said.
Naturally, she was worried. On April 4, she returned for a biopsy. On April 5, she got a call from St. Mary’s breast health nurse Ashley Woodall. She had breast cancer.
“Cancer,” Jones said. “It’s a hard word to use. But people came out of the woodwork to support me, people who had had breast cancer, people who said, ‘So-and-so had breast cancer.’ People do survive it. That’s helpful to know when you’re frightened and not sure what to do.”
A few days later, her surgeon, Cody Gunn, shared her mammography images with her. The lesion was clearly visible in one of the 3D slices, but not in a 2D image captured at the same time.
“I was truly amazed,” Jones said. “If I hadn’t had that 3D mammogram, there’s no telling when they would have found it.”
Her family, friends and church rallied around her. Woodall was there for her, too, providing a listening ear and helping her navigate the complex decisions she was having to make.
“It brings your family a lot closer,” Jones noted. “We’ve cried. We’ve laughed. You have to laugh.”
On May 6, she came to St. Mary’s for her surgery. Gunn performed a double mastectomy. As soon as the procedure was done, plastic surgeon Cesar Gumucio performed reconstructive surgery in the same room. Performing mastectomy and reconstruction back-to-back reduces the number of surgeries women with breast cancer undergo and allows them to focus on recovery sooner.
But surgery was not enough. Breast cancer is unusual in women Jones’ age – 48 when she was diagnosed – especially since she has no family history of the disease. So her oncologist, Cynthia Shepherd , advised further testing. Jones agreed, thinking not only of herself, but her daughters. Her result: elevated risk. Shepherd recommended chemotherapy in addition to surgery.
“Chemotherapy is not what you want to do, but if your doctor tells you that you are likely to get cancer again, you do what you need to do,” Jones said.
Living life to the fullest
After taking some time to recover from surgery, Jones and her family took advantage of an opportunity to spend quality time at the beach.
Then, in July, she started chemo. The schedule was four powerful doses, one every two weeks, followed by 12 less powerful doses once per week.
“They say those first four rounds are the hardest, but I felt pretty good after them,” Jones said. “Still, the effects are cumulative, so I took it easy to see how my body responded. I told myself, ‘I’ll just do what’s right for me and my kindergarteners,’ and that’s what I did.”
Today, Jones is back in the classroom, feeling great. This past summer, a year after starting chemo, she celebrated with the wedding of one of her daughters. Jones is being proactive about her health and has resumed all of her normal activities.
“I can look back now and see how blessed I was through the whole process,” she said. “After cancer, you see how precious everything is. I am enjoying life and all that it brings.
“When something like this happens, you are reminded that you live in a wonderful community,” Jones concluded. “I’m so thankful. I’m thankful that the waiting is over. I’m thankful that all my doctors have been wonderful. And I’m thankful that St. Mary’s found my cancer in time to do something about it.”
3D mammography is available at all four St. Mary’s imaging locations in Athens, Lavonia and Greensboro. Weekend appointments are available in Athens. To schedule your mammogram, visit stmarysathens.org or call (706) 389-2700.